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Florence Baptistery North Doors
Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) was a many-sided Renaissance figure: bronze-caster, sculptor, goldsmith, draughtsman, architect, writer and historian. Among his most celebrated surviving work are the bronze doors which he created for the Baptistery of the Cathedral in Florence. This paper will discuss the circumstances in which Ghiberti secured and completed the commission to design the north doors of the Baptistery (1400-24) and analyse their composition and character. Ghiberti's work in Florence will then be compared to that of Gianlorenzo Bernini at the baroque church of Sant' Andrea al Quirinale, Rome (1658-70).
In late 1400 the officials of the Cloth-Dealers and Refiners' Guild of Florence (the Arte di Calimara) announced a competition to design a set of doors for the Baptistery of the Cathedral. The Baptistery is a very old structure, the primary elements of which probably date to the seventh and eight centuries AD. The exterior covering of marble was constructed in the twelfth century and stood as an exemplar of architectural elegance and harmony. The Baptistery, which is a free-standing octagonal building located in the Piazza San Giovanni at the western end of the Cathedral, has three doors opening to the north, south and east. In the 1330s Andrea Pisano had completed a set of bronze doors for the southern entrance, and the Guild sought to complete the project by fitting similar doors, in bronze and decorated with reliefs, to the other two entrances. The tradition of decorating doors with bronze reliefs was long-established in medieval Europe, and was continued in vibrant form only in Renaissance Italy. The subject to be depicted was the Sacrifice of Isaac, and the Guild provided highly detailed guidance on the form the design was to take. Seven artists participated in the competition, four of the conservative school of Florentine art (Simone da Colle, Niccolo di Luca Spinelli, Francesco di Valdambrino and Niccolo di Piero Lamberti), and three prominent adherents of a newer style (Jacopo della Quercia, Brunelleschi, and Ghiberti). Of the competition proposals, only those of Ghiberti and Brunelleschi have survived and are now preserved in the Bargello Museum in Florence.
Ghiberti was already associated with the work on the Cathedral at Florence, which is adjacent to but separate from the Baptistery (which was itself used as the city's cathedral before the former structure was completed in the early fifteenth century). He was later involved in a rivalry with Brunelleschi over who was to design the dome for the Cathedral, and was engaged in other unspecified architectural work for the Cathedral after 1406. He also seems to have contributed architecturally to the Strozzi Chapel (1423-4) and the Orsanmichele in Florence, but otherwise his architecture is little-known today compared to his bronzecasting and sculpture. At the time of the competition he was still young, but was already fairly well-known as a sculptor and painter in a contemporary style.
Both Ghiberti's and Brunelleschi's proposals for the Baptistery doors are highly accomplished and ambitious in scale and conception, but are very different in character. Brunelleschi's scheme is energetic and restless, filled with purposive figures and action, while Ghiberti's version gives an impression of unity and calm, with all the figures united in a single landscape and tied together in a balanced, rather than a fragmented, composition. It is notable that both proposals make use of ancient, classical forms as 'quotations' rather than as direct inspiration, offering re-interpretation of the antique legacy rather than simple repetition. Both Brunelleschi's expressive, energetic realism and Ghiberti's more restful, idealized forms thus represent new forms of engagement with the classical past.
Ghiberti's proposal was preferred by the Guild; his achievement in unifying the design into a single pictorial space, and his technical proficiency in casting almost the entire door as a single piece of bronze, seem to have been decisive factors with the judging committee. However, at some point after this decision was made, the design itself was changed, with New Testament themes - the Life of Christ, with eight additional panels of the Four Evangelists and the Latin Fathers of the Church - substituted for the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac. The reasons for this change, and even its precise date, are unclear, but by 1402/3 Ghiberti was working on the new design.
The completed doors are less radical than the earlier proposal with which Ghiberti won the competition. Their basic form is of 28 individual reliefs in seven rows of four. In this, Ghiberti followed the design used by Pisano in his doors of 1336, which in turn reflected the architectural style of the building, although Ghiberti's design is richer in its use of decoration. The use of patterns of green and white marble in geometric arrangements, indicating both an expressive interpretation of the structure itself and a visual delimiting of space that foreshadows the evolution of pictorial perspective, provides a context of harmony and order which is echoed by the style of the doors. The quatrefoil panels represent a gothic spirit of movement but are constrained within a balanced and harmonious scheme in which idealized forms and static composition prevails. It is important to note that the doors were created over an extended period of time (1400-1424) and that Ghiberti's own style and approach changed during that period. In particular, a freer naturalism makes an appearance in the latter portions of the work, such as the panel representing the dispute of Christ with the Doctors of the Church; the fruits of such experimentation appearing in the later 'Doors of Paradise' created by Ghiberti for the same building, in which an expressiveness of perspective and pictorial effects prevail. Overall, however, the earlier doors embody a spirit of idealization and harmony echoing Pisano's earlier work and fully appropriate to a structure which formed the primary expression of the civic Christian faith of Florence. Ghiberti was also responsible for the door frame with its floral decorations which successfully integrate the sculptural qualities of the doors into the planar architecture of the building itself.
The doors of the Baptistery are of central importance in the design of the building, symbolizing its position as a focus of the communal life of the city. In being richly gilded they express the wealth of the Guild which was responsible for the Baptistery and its centrals position in the life of the city, while the high quality and original conception of the decoration place the Guild at the forefront of artistic patronage. Stylistically, they echo the harmonious, structured and rectilinear planning and architecture of the building, and express its spirit of balance and repose. A very different spirit can be seen in the building to which we now turn: the seventeenth-century church of Sant' Andrea al Quirinale in Rome. Where the Baptistery expresses harmony, this church conveys restlessness and movement; where the Baptistery relies on rectangles and polygons, Sant' Andrea is constructed around the fluid forms of the oval and the curve; where the doors of the Baptistery embody openness and an urbane civility, the entrance to Sant' Andrea symbolizes the movement from the mundane world of human life to the elevated and sacred realm of the divine.
The church was constructed to serve the Jesuit seminary on the Quirinal Hill in Rome, and was funded by Cardinal Camillo Pamphili. The architect, Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680, was a fundamental influence on the development of the Roman baroque. He was an architect, a sculptor, a painter and draughtsman and a playwright and theatrical designer, and the energy and robustness of his work became the guiding motifs of the baroque style in Rome. By the late 1650s Bernini had already worked on a number of notable church projects in Rome but had not yet designed an entire church himself. In 1658 he began work on San Tommaso da Villanova at Castel Gandolfo, and Sant' Andrea al Quirinale in Rome. The former was completed by 1661, but Sant' Andrea took twenty years to build (1658-1678) and was beset by problems. The site for the new church was extremely small and restrictive; at Castel Gandolfo, Bernini had been able to use a Greek Cross plan, but in this case there was insufficient space for any such scheme. Bernini resolved the problem by designing an oval church, and by placing the main axis of the building, with the main entrance and the high altar, not along the longitudinal axis of the oval but across its short, lateral, axis.
Having employed the oval form in the plan of the church, Bernini went on to apply it as a theme throughout the whole design; thus a porch in the form of a demi-oval, supported by Ionic columns, projects from the lofty facade. The porch is topped by a monumental carving of the Pamphili coat of arms, flanked by the two portions of a broken curved pediment, once again making use of the oval form. The energy of this composition expresses the soaring nature of the building as a whole, providing a focal point for the restless elements…[continue]
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